Aug 30, 2008

World - New crisis as Somali refugees flee to Kenya

The Dadaab settlement now hosts more than 210,000 people, making it the world’s biggest refugee camp. With at least 200 new arrivals every day, aid workers are struggling to cope.
“We are already at bursting point,” said Maeve Murphy, field officer with the U.N. Refugee Agency in Dadaab, over 95 kilometres south of border with Somalia. “And more refugees are on their way.”
The refugees are fleeing the worst fighting in Somalia since the early 90s, when the country’s descent into anarchy began. On one side is the internationally recognised but weak Transitional Federal Government (TFG), supported by thousands of Ethiopian troops. Waging an increasingly effective guerrilla war against them is a broad-based, Islamist-led opposition, whose hardline wing last week took over the strategic port city of Kismayo.
More than 8,000 civilians have been killed in Somalia since the beginning of last year, while nearly one million people have been internally displaced since September 2007. Drought, hyperinflation and year-on-year food prices increases of up to 700 per cent have compounded the humanitarian crisis. The U.N.’s Food Security Analysis Unit on Wednesday described the situation as “alarming and profound.” Some 3.2 million people — nearly half the population — needed emergency assistance, it said, up from 1.8 million people in January. One in six children under the age of five is acutely malnourished.
But aid delivery is more difficult than anywhere in the world, with the possible exception of Afghanistan, humanitarian workers say. Pirates prevent food relief arriving by sea, while ambushes, roadblocks and targeted assassinations have severely impacted field operations. All of south and central Somalia and large parts of the northern Puntland region are almost completely off-limits to international staff.
The capital, Mogadishu remains the epicentre of the insurgency and it is there that many of Dadaab’s new arrivals start their journeys. Paying £50 for a seat in a truck or minibus, they make the journey south to the Kenyan border, which has been officially closed since early 2007 but remains porous enough for the refugees to sneak through.
Abdullahi Shimoy Mukhtar, 40, who arrived in Dadaab with his family on August 1, said that the insecurity had made it impossible to earn a living in Mogadishu.
“If the government soldiers or Ethiopians suspect that you support Al-Shabaab [fighters from the Islamist militant wing], they will kill you in the street, and vice-versa.”
Dadaab, where temperatures often touch 104{+0}C, consists of three neighbouring camps, though a fourth may soon have to be built. The newcomers’ shelters are desert igloos; bent branches covered with plastic sheeting and blankets. But Mukhtar’s brother Muhammad, said: “Even if we have nothing else here, we have security. There is a dark future for Somalia.”
Few Somali watchers would disagree, at least for the short term. The TFG’s president, the former warlord Abdullahi Yusuf, whom most observers now regard as serious obstacle to progress, is locked in a power-struggle with his Prime Minister, Nur Hassan Hussein. The political arm of Islamist opposition, known as the Alliance for the Re-Liberation of Somalia (ARS), is also deeply divided.
Desperate for some sort of peace deal, the U.N. and western diplomats have been pushing the “Djibouti Agreement,” which creates deadlines for a ceasefire, the deployment of international peacekeepers and the withdrawal of Ethiopian troops. On August 18, the TFG finally signed the deal with the moderate ARS faction headed by Sheik Sharif Sheikh Ahmed.
But though some Islamist military commanders strongly support the agreement, the more militant arm of the ARS, headed by the Eritrea-based cleric Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, remains opposed to it. Aweys, who has his own field commanders, also has close ties to Al-Shabaab, and to Hassan al-Turki, another veteran Somali radical with his own militias. All three are on the terrorist list drawn up by the U.S., which strongly backed Ethiopia’s invasion in late 2006. Some European countries believe the alleged links to Al-Qaeda are exaggerated and unhelpful to the peace process.
Various Islamist militias from the hardline ARS faction helped win the two-day battle for Kismayo from last week, assisted by local clan militias opposed to Barre Hirale, a warlord and MP who controlled the town.
One western diplomat described the victory as “photocopy” of what had occurred in September 2006, when Islamist forces captured Kismayo from Hirale before Ethiopia’s intervention.
If they keep hold of the port, the Islamists will net millions of dollars in annual revenues, can easily ship in weapons, and will effectively control the coastline all the way south to Kenya.
“Ethiopia and the U.S. have to think quickly about how they want to respond,” said a Somalia analyst in Nairobi. “It’s a pretty bold move by the Islamists.” — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2008

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